On October 15, Venezuela had its decisive regional elections, where approximately 19 million voters were called upon to elect governors for twenty-three states. As for most of the Chávez era and especially during the rule of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, the elections were considered more of a zero-sum game rather simply the renewal of regional executive officials.
The results announced by the National Electoral Council announced a voter turnout over 61 percent. The results represent a large win for the chavista government, claiming 17 governorships including the densely populated and industrial states of Lara and Miranda, previously controlled by the opposition. The Democratic Unity Table, a coalition of almost all political parties opposing the government, won in only five states. However, the leadership stated – before and after official results were announced – it did not recognize the outcome and that the voting had been tampered. As of this moment, definitive results for voting in the country’s largest state, Bolívar, have not yet been formally announced.
Overview – What was at stake?
Hardly anyone, outside or in Venezuela, was shocked by the conflictive nature of these elections. The regional elections themselves were in late, for according to the law they should have been held over a year ago. So it was both surprising and suspicious when the chavista-leaning National Electoral Council (CNE) set the date for the elections little over a month in advance.
All of this occured in the aftermath of intense anti-government protests lasting four months and resulting, as of August 31, in 136 deaths and the arrest of 726 civilians. The protests were also provoked by illegal and rushed elections (vetoed by the opposition) for a National Constituent Assembly to replace the unicameral Congress and renew the special executive powers for President Nicolás Maduro.
Uncertainty over the elections was not limited to who would win the most and which governorships, but rather how the outcome could favor or hurt leverage for both factions in the ongoing political standoff and for the Presidential elections scheduled – yet still unconfirmed – for 2018.
The opposition, even by previous elections standards, competed from a position of weakness. Not only were its most prominent figures (and lesser known cadres) either imprisoned, exiled, or even banned from running for office, but the leadership struggled to convince its constituency to actually go and vote. Criticism centered on the Unity Table’s decision to participate in the elections altogether, which for hardliners legitimizes the Constituent Assembly and the Maduro regime.
Opposition parties countered abstentions from their own ranks by insisting that for people to go and vote equaled an act of civil rebellion. Also, while they may continue to denounce the regime as illegitimate and dictatorial, the opposition argued that no good would come from abstention and handing over a victory to chavismo on a silver platter.
The government also had a difficult time rallying support for its candidates, many of which were already sitting governors seeking reelection or familiar faces among apparatchik. Albeit the political turmoil, the average citizen’s main concern is the state of the economy: Annual inflation averaged 460 percent by late August, and the scarcity of basic staples such as essential foodstuffs and medicines remains tenacious. Not surprisingly, a recent survey conducted by Datanálisis, the most prestigious polling company in the country, indicated that 90.6 percent of Venezuelans perceive the country’s situation as negative, and within that percentage, 61.5 percent consider it very negative. In tandem with such numbers, another poll from early October estimated disapproval for the Maduro administration at 75.6 percent, with 44.5 percent of respondents rating it as “very bad”.
Competing against the rival team, and the referee
Hardships, particularly for the opposition, also came from institutional setbacks, mainly the National Electoral Council’s recent decision to relocate or eliminate 251 voting centers in 16 states. The ruling – officially justified by security concerns – was perceived as a tactic to increase abstention. According to Eugenio Martínez, a journalist specializing on electoral issues, the measure would have affected close to 400,000 voters, particularly in states where pro-opposition turn out has been significant: Lara, Miranda, Táchira, and Zulia.
Furthermore, the National Electoral Council has extended its refusal to allow international observers such as the Organization of American States and the European Union to local civil society groups like the Venezuelan Elections Observatory, which for the last five years was allowed nation-wide monitoring through a network of volunteers.
The results and their aftermath
Source: La Patilla
Sunday’s results were surprising considering the high voter turnout. For previous regional elections, in 2004 and 2012, it hovered around 50 percent and forecasts predicted that, in the measure the Unity Table could encourage voting, opposition parties would have better chances at winning more states. While the government predictably retained support in rural areas, where there are smaller and more sparsely allocated voting centers, optimistic projections gave the Unity Table a winning margin of up to sixteen states if turnout exceeded 63 percent.
If the opposition is to pursue claims that results were tampered, it will begin by calling for civic protests at home and demanding support from abroad. Simultaneously, it will have to decipher how to restore its legitimacy on several fronts. First, after losing two key states: Lara, an agro-industrial bastion headed by Henri Falcon, long considered the unavoidable leader of the dissident chavismo; and most importantly Miranda, ruled for the past nine years by Henrique Capriles, prominent opposition politician and two-time presidential hopeful.
The government, starting with Maduro himself, diligently acknowledged the results and claimed they represent a significant triumph. The incumbent will use this vote to try and energize its party’s base, especially amidst claims that voting turnout for electing the National Constituent Assembly last July 31 was manipulated and coerced. Most importantly, the regime will argue that unlike what has been said from Washington, the European Parliament and the Organization of American States, the state of democracy in Venezuela is indeed healthy and stable.
Furthermore, the regime will expect these results to disenfranchise opposition forces, and generate mistrust in the rival’s base for both the Unity Table and the electoral system. This would weaken the chances for the opposition in the 2018 presidential elections. Therefore, last Sunday’s elections may have provided a window of opportunity and breathing space for Maduro’s administration.
Reaction from outside actors
Just as the “Venezuela situation” garnered significant international attention since last April, the regional election were an opportunity for critics of the chavista government to voice concerns. From Washington, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, insisted before Sunday on the necessity for “the electoral authorities to allow for the Venezuelan people to speak”. His remarks were backed the following day by a press release from the State Department emphasizing that the White House would pay “close attention to this vote”. It remains to be seen up to what degree – and through which methods – the Trump administration would be willing to support Venezuelan opposition leaders in their claims that the voting was tampered with.
Others in the Hemisphere will have trouble in the short term to keep up with a narrative that Maduro’s government, which formally allowed for regional elections, is indeed dictatorial and tampers political freedoms. The Organization of American States and the Lima Group – formed by twelve foreign affairs ministers – had concerns about the Unity Table attending the elections altogether, and will likely find themselves in this predicament.
Thanks to LAPO for providing us with this insightful article.